Chinatown Confidential

The Chiu Chow cuisine of Meng Lei.

Meng Lei's brow furrows every time I enter his restaurant.

He doesn't speak my language, and I don't know his. His menu, a modest sign on the wall, is rendered entirely in Chinese, with no English translation. This makes taking orders from English-only Americans impossible. I can't even point to what I want. I might as well be in Guangdong province, the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine and the style of cooking Lei specializes in: Chiu Chow.

Still, I come.

Crab with Ginger and Green Onion
Jennifer Silverberg
Crab with Ginger and Green Onion
Jennifer Silverberg
Five Flavored Pork
Jennifer Silverberg
Five Flavored Pork
Chao Lyan Roasted Duck
Jennifer Silverberg
Chao Lyan Roasted Duck
Chrysanthemum with Guava Ball
Jennifer Silverberg
Chrysanthemum with Guava Ball
Cabbage Wrap with Three Stuffings
Jennifer Silverberg
Cabbage Wrap with Three Stuffings
Meng Lei in his kitchen: "Nobody else in St. Louis knows this style of cooking."
Jennifer Silverberg
Meng Lei in his kitchen: "Nobody else in St. Louis knows this style of cooking."
Lei with wife, Cheng (at left), and their daughter, U Kan
Jennifer Silverberg
Lei with wife, Cheng (at left), and their daughter, U Kan

Details

Food stylist: Mary K. Sutkus

Related Stories

More About

Even if you know the language, eating at Meng Lei's place can be frustrating. You can see him through a window into the kitchen, in profile, chopping and frying. When he's busy he won't even look up to greet you. The first time my friend Johnny Wang, a second-generation Chinese-American, went, Wang bailed. Lei saw him enter and kept right on cooking. Half an hour later, Wang's order still hadn't been taken. "I said, 'Forget this crap,' and left," he recalls.

But he came back.

Chiu Chow cuisine has teetered at the precipice of trendiness for two decades, but it remains virtually unavailable in New York or San Francisco, let alone St. Louis. "No one here knows the style. Even if I trained someone, it would take a long time to learn all the tricks that I know," Lei says one day when I bring along Eric Huang, executive secretary of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Greater St. Louis, as a translator. Lei says his only local "competition" is in Maryland Heights. Poking his thumb westward, he opines that the chef's attempts to execute a certain roast duck preparation, a Chiu Chow specialty, are "an embarrassment."

Lei speaks with authority. Doubters need only experience the supple pleasure of his cabbage rolls, as green as springtime, arrayed on a round platter like some sort of Chinese brain teaser, to grant it.

To make the cabbage rolls, Lei sautés shrimp, pork, mushrooms, ginger and garlic and douses them in a spicy brown sauce. Then he steams a leaf of napa cabbage, places a dollop of the shrimp-and-pork mixture in the center and folds the cabbage into a roll the size of a baby's fist. Huang says the chef describes this dish on the menu using the character that suggests the Chinese practice of women binding their feet to keep them small. "At one time it was popular. They figured men liked to hold their feet, to cuddle them or kiss them, whatever," Huang explains. "He used that character: 'small but delicate cabbage roll.'"

When Lei brings the rolls to the table, his stern face gives way to a bare crack of a smile. With every dish he presents, he utters a proud monosyllable that transcends language: "Eh?" Translation: "Step back and let me show you how it's done."

The first time I arrived without a translator, Lei glanced up from his cutting board, looking more than a little perturbed. I took this as a bad sign. Five-inch cleaver in hand, he was carving a duck breast. Some sauce was cooking in a wok. As I watched, he swept a tasting finger through the liquid like a bear grabbing a salmon and poked it into his mouth.

He looked my way, then resumed cutting. I held up a five-page Xerox — his thirteen-year-old daughter's English translation of his menu — which Lei had dug out of a storage box for me a few days earlier. At the top it reads, "Chao Chou Cuisine: For Food Order Outside the Menu Please Call for Prices." (Even the dishes that are listed on the menu have no prices.) He nodded, noncommittal. Taking a roasted duck from a tray, he placed it on his cutting board and chopped off its head.

In the dining room, a lone patron, a middle-aged man, was reading the St. Louis Chinese American News and slurping what looked to be a seafood soup. Occasionally he'd stop and ladle a refresher from a serving pot on his table. When Lei came out to the front a short time later, I pointed to an item on the menu, "Buddha Hand with Pork Bones," and grunted. He grunted back and got to work. Ten minutes later he delivered a plate piled with ribs that had been hacked to the size of knuckles, in a tangy sauce redolent of ginger and scallions. Buddha Hand turned out to be an aromatic citrus fruit that looks like a sea anemone and smells strongly of lemon zest.

While I gnawed my ribs, Lei returned to the kitchen and commenced pounding away with his cleaver. It sounded like he was carving up an elephant.

When I asked a translator to tell Lei I wanted to write a story about him, he knit his brow in that way he has. Inviting Americans into his world would pose problems, he said. I said I understood and that I'd be careful. He paused. "You write whatever you see fit," he said.


Johnny Wang is an attorney at Lashly & Baer who specializes in commercial litigation. Away from the law office, he specializes in food. It came as no surprise that his strong opinions about food extend to Chinese cuisine, but I was perplexed to hear him say he's not keen on the local renditions thereof. St. Louis is generally regarded as having a decent Chinese-dining scene, particularly on Olive Boulevard in University City. Not so, according to Wang. With a few exceptions, he told me, St. Louis Chinese is heavily Americanized, oversweetened to please the dull Western (or worse, Midwestern) palate.

There was, however, the proverbial exception that proves the rule, Wang allowed. It's a tiny place, he explained, and you won't find many English speakers there. You know the old Anglo axiom: that you can judge the quality of a Chinese restaurant by the number of Chinese patrons? Wang said the clientele at this place consisted entirely of expats, Chinese-Americans like him and a smattering of others who speak the language.

He invited me to join him there for dinner.

A week later I found myself sitting at a table in a tiny storefront on busy Olive Boulevard that one would be hard pressed to call a restaurant. It looked more like a storeroom. The three tables (counting one rickety card table) accommodated ten seats and vied for space with a glass-fronted cooler of the sort you see in butcher shops. Behind the cooler was another table, upon which sat two rice cookers. One held white rice, the other a gruel called congee. Cardboard boxes were piled in a corner. Though we'd come in through the front door, I came to learn that many patrons enter the restaurant through the back door, which opens onto an alley, and pass through the kitchen on their way to the dining room in front.

Wang made himself at home. He walked behind the counter and grabbed a canned beverage from the cooler, the bottom shelf of which was stocked with, among other drinks, Hello Boss presweetened coffee, Mr. Coco coconut milk, chrysanthemum tea and sweetened soy milk, as well as Coca-Cola and Vess sodas. Two upper shelves held cold salads. Signs taped to the glass were in Chinese script with bare-bones English subtitles: cuttlefish, pig ear, duck wings, intestine, spicy-and-sour chicken feet. The chicken feet, which Lei insisted I sample one night after dinner, were pickled in a spicy marinade of chile and vinegar and as chewy as rubber bands.

Wang had called ahead to let the chef know he was coming. This was less for my benefit than it was to take into account Meng Lei's repertoire, much of which requires advance warning. For the most part, Lei decides what he'll serve based on what looks best each day while grocery shopping. If you call ahead and say you're hankering for crab (a Chiu Chow specialty), Lei will buy crabs. They are likely to be steamed with jumbo slices of ginger and brought to your table piled high on a platter with Chinese celery and scallions, swimming in a thick sauce conjured from the fatty yellow juices of the shellfish.

Even if you don't ask for a special ingredient, at least half the menu requires a few hours' notice. You must call ahead for Chrysanthemum with Guava Ball, Steamed Plum with Abalone, Melon Stewed Fresh Pig Stomach, and Steamed Lemon Mullet. Doubtless with this in mind, a lot of regulars opt simply to tell Lei how many dishes they want him to prepare, rather than which kind.

That first night Lei soon appeared, carrying a plate of prettily arranged cold meats drenched in lo soi, the deep red stock central to Chiu Chow cuisine. Wang loosely interpreted the name of this dish as "cold cuts," conceding that the phrase didn't capture the essence of what lay before us.

In the middle of the platter was a clump of glassy strips that might have been mistaken for cooked cabbage but were actually pickled jellyfish with small chunks of duck meat mixed in. The texture of the jellyfish was simultaneously chewy and soft, not entirely unlike blanched cabbage, with just enough tension to snap between the teeth. Partitioned around the jellyfish centerpiece as if on a multi-topped pizza were six different preparations of meats: chunks of cold roast duck with a crisp soy glaze and thinly sliced breast meat; chilled squid in big, pale slabs that had taken on the flavor of the earthy, sweet lo soi; beef tongue, gamy and dense; morsels that looked like clams but were in fact duck tongues; and slices of an odd-looking translucent meat that we later learned was beef tendon. Attempting to impart the origin of the substance through sign language, Lei pointed to the inside of his forearm.

In Chiu Chow cooking, and in many parts of China, meals often kick off with a dish like this, Lei told us. "Next is the seafood," he said, then added, "Shark-fin soup is a very famous dish from my province, but it's very expensive here and I have to preorder it, and it's not of good quality. If you order in advance, I will cook it for you. Whatever they have at the markets, I can make into a dish. Show me a picture of it and I can make it for you." (Chiu Chow is also known for the delicacy known as bird's nest soup, which features as its centerpiece the nest of a certain species of Asian swift.)


Though it might not occur to Americans raised on Chinese restaurant food, cooking styles in China vary geographically, in much the same way soul food differs from, say, Tex Mex, or the way a Maine lobster shack is nothing like a Memphis barbecue shack.

If China were America, the Guangdong province, formerly known as Canton, would be the Gulf Coast. On Guangdong's southeastern rim is a city of 1.2 million residents called Shantou (formerly Swatow). The cuisine of Meng Lei's homeland is variously referred to as "Swatow," "Chao Chou," "Chiu Chow" and the chef's preferred term, "Chau Zhou."

"Chau Zhou is a Mandarin spelling of something that is in the Cantonese genre," clarifies cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, speaking by phone along with her husband, fellow food writer Fred Ferretti, from their home in New Jersey.

Many consider Lo's The Chinese Kitchen, published in 1999, to be a definitive guide to the nation's regional cuisines. "Though they are referred to as Chiu Chau, Ch'ao Chou, Chaozhou, Teochiu, or Teochew, depending on where they are, they refer to themselves as Chiu Chow, at home and in Hong Kong, where they live by the millions. I shall therefore defer to them and call them Chiu Chow," Lo writes in a passage devoted to this specialized cuisine.

"'Chiu Chow' refers to a people, a region and a cuisine," Ferretti clarifies. "They were sort of poor traders, and over the years they migrated inland and became a dominant group of people, particularly in Hong Kong."

Lo: "They are very smart people, and they work very hard. They have their own language, their own opera and their own cuisine. And they are a very rich people in Hong Kong."

Ferretti: "Over the centuries they've become Hong Kong power brokers. And because of the way that the Chiu Chow have integrated into the Cantonese Hong Kong people, many of their dishes have been, to coin a word, Canton-ized."

Meng Lei's menu contains a number of Cantonese dishes. One of the best combines bean curd, ground whitefish and egg white, which Lei whips together, then cuts into matchbox-size rectangles. After coating each with a light batter flecked with scallions, he flash-fries them. He also prepares a Cantonese-style dessert, which looks like a half-dozen jumbo doughnut holes on a plate, only pale white. They're made from lightly sweetened taro root purée, wrapped in a dough of glutinous rice. In the center of each ball, Lei has nestled a greenish-yellow ginkgo seed, which has the texture of a cooked almond and is said to be an aphrodisiac. Lei collects the seeds from local parks each fall. (During downtimes at the restaurant, he sometimes makes fresh nougat, which he individually wraps, first in rice paper, then wax paper, and sells in packages of ten for $2.)

At lunch one day he prepared a plateful of dumplings in a pool of golden stock. The skins were crêpe-like, made from a batter heavy on the egg white. Each pancake was stuffed with a mixture of fish and vegetables, then gathered at the top and tied with a chive ribbon, looking like nothing so much as a platter of cartoon money bags.

Owing to the region's proximity to the South China Sea, the original Chiu Chow people were seafarers. The cuisine features a lot of seafood, along with fowl (chiefly goose and duck) and lightly steamed fresh vegetables. "When we cook vegetables, we require that you taste the flavor of the original food," Ming Lei says. "It's important that you still be able to taste the flavors. And with the fish, you will still taste the flavor of the fish." Lei says his food emphasizes "refreshing" flavors. He doesn't use much salt, he says, and never MSG. He doesn't like extreme flavors, nothing too sweet or sour. He tends toward seasonings that linger in the mouth a long time, that float on your taste buds.

A sign in Chinese hangs on one wall of Lei's dining room. "It is an introduction to the Chao Zhou area," explains Jian Leng, associate director of the Center for Humanities at Washington University and one of my translators/dining mates. "The sign describes a lovely land: a very rich area, beautiful, in southern China, with lovely water. All year long it is spring and warm. 'A lot of poets wrote there,' it reads, and then tells of the fine traditions of cooking and of tea growing. Chao Zhou is also where oolong tea comes from. It mentions their stock and their crop, as well as their tea ceremony."

Lei's ancestors were Chiu Chow, but he grew up in Macao, a hangnail of a peninsula southwest of Shantou, along the South China Sea. With a population of a half-million people over about eleven square miles, Macao perches on the western edge of the delta formed by the Pearl River and the West River, with Hong Kong 37 miles to the east across the sea. A gambling capital, until 1999 Macao was a Portuguese colony. Now, like Hong Kong, it is a "special administrative region" controlled by the Chinese government but allowed relative autonomy.

In Macao, and across southern China, the Cantonese style — now called Guangdong style — is the most popular. Despite this fact, and despite the fact that Macao has its own distinct cuisine, which combines Cantonese and Portuguese influences, Lei concentrated on Chiu Chow from the start. "A lot of banquets use [Cantonese] style," Lei says through Eric Huang. "My food is cooked more as a day-to-day snack rather than at official banquets. It's more casual. Like, blue-collar food."

Explains Huang, an insurance salesman who helps Chinese immigrants find their footing in America: "If you go to a wedding banquet, you never eat this food. I grew up in Taiwan and came here thirtysomething years ago, and never even once have I gone to an official banquet and eaten this cuisine, because this is not catered to that kind of function."

Huang notes that midafternoon is one of Lei's busiest times. That's when workers from other Chinese restaurants come to grab lunch between shifts. One afternoon I asked one, a craggy old chef who said he'd been cooking in Chinese restaurants for 40 years, whether anybody else in St. Louis cooked in Lei's style. He held up one finger.

In The Chinese Kitchen, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo describes Chiu Chow cooking as "pungent and direct." Soups are "flavored with their fish sauce, strong and salty, virtually identical to the nam pla of Thailand, the nuoc mam of Vietnam, to which they have historically migrated, and with whose people they have intermarried." The Chiu Chow, imparts Lo, are fond of pickles and sweet marmalades and bottle their own rice vinegar, tangerine oil and a soy sauce sweetened with sugar.

With its fresh ingredients and emphasis on seafood, Chiu Chow would seem to be poised for culinary cult status. In a 1982 New York Times article, Lo called Chiu Chow a "Cantonese gastronomic offshoot" on the verge of expanding its reach. In 2005 Los Angeles Times freelance food writer Linda Burum reported that the style "has reached trend status in Hong Kong. But it's infrequently found in Southern California, so there's a pent-up craving among Hong Kong expats for this delicate, delicious food."

Ferretti calls Chiu Chow "something on the cusp. One of the reasons [it didn't catch on] was that most of its practitioners were Cantonese cooks. So they would quickly do a few Chiu Chow things and then sort of slide back into the Cantonese genre."

The same phenomenon, Ferretti adds, befell another regional Chinese style, Hakka, in New York. "A New York food critic at the time did this thing that said, 'There's this Hakka restaurant on the east coast,' and Eileen and I went there and only about five dishes were Hakka. The rest were Cantonese."


Meng Lei sits at one of his tables discussing his lo soi with Washington University professor Jian Leng. This evening's meal, the remains of which we're still picking at, began with the tray of cold meats, then proceeded to an egg pancake dotted with oysters and scallions (Lei also serves a variation which replaces the oyster with "hairtail," a pungent, anchovy-like fish), triangles of bean curd doused in a mild garlic soy sauce and plain steamed Chinese broccoli, which is similar to broccoli rabe, only milder.

Leng, who was born in Beijing and earned her anthropology doctorate while moonlighting as a waitress at Chinese restaurants in St. Louis, says the most popular and financially successful eateries here are the ones that bend to fit the American ideal of Chinese food: a little sweeter, with flavors at the extremes. Most American Chinese restaurants keep odd ingredients off the menu and serve them only when a native requests them. At the Joy Luck Buffet on Manchester Road in Brentwood, Leng says, Chinese patrons will request beef lung, which is not offered on the menu. "If it was listed as 'beef lung,' it would scare the Americans away," Leng laughs. "But if you taste it, it tastes just like beef.

"Or jellyfish," she adds. "Western people hate it. But if you taste it, it's really just like crispy cucumber."

Dressed in his typical work outfit — baggy jeans, black sneakers turned brown from grease and a stained yellow soccer jersey whose sleeves are pulled up to reveal muscular forearms scarred with burns from 36 years spent in the kitchen — Lei looks as if he needs this breather. He looks out at the world with cool caution from a face most distinguished by high cheekbones and jagged teeth. He's 54, but with his black hair worn in a Sid Vicious buzz cut he could pass for 40.

When Lei moved from Macao to America — "on November 15, 2002," he says with precision — he brought his cooking utensils, his knowledge and a container of lo soi, the liquid the color of cherrywood that perennially boils on a burner in his kitchen.

Translated literally, lo soimeans "old water." Similar to the sourdough starter used in baking or the alvearsystem of aging Spanish sherry, the broth is constantly fed but retains a "mother" — a kernel of its origin. Often passed down from generation to generation, it is the cornerstone of Chiu Chow cuisine.

"In the best restaurants, every day they have their marinated stock," Lei explains as Leng interprets. "You boil the meat in it, and then you save it. If a restaurant is famous, it means their stock is famous."

Lei boils the day's meat in the stock, replenishing with water as needed. At day's end he skims off any fat and strains what remains. "You don't save it all," he says. "The dirty things on the top, you throw away. What remains in the bottom is very pure. There is nothing bad in it."

"The word he uses is 'seed,'" Jian Leng says. "'This is the seed of the plant.'"

"If I don't have the seed, I can't reproduce the best stock," Lei goes on." All the chefs, Chao Zhou and Guangdong, when they leave, pack their lo soi."

"You don't worry about it going bad, because it's basically always cooking in the restaurant," says Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. "Some chefs get their lo soi handed down from their masters, and it is 85 years old." Lo's recipe for lo soi in The Chinese Kitchen features, among other seasonings, cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, fennel, ginger, licorice root, Szechuan peppercorns, soy sauce and a liquor called mei kuei lu chiew. (If mei kuei lu chiew is unavailable, Lo recommends substituting gin.)

Though lo soi is used throughout southern China, the Chiu Chow rendition is distinct from any other, including versions from other regions of Guangdong. Lei says Guangdong stock tastes very "heavy," in order to mask the flavor of the original meat. "The beef and pork that you put in — when you take it out, it doesn't taste like beef and pork very much," he explains. "The stock flavor covers the meat."

Meat boiled in Chiu Chow lo soi, on the other hand, retains its distinctive qualities. "When you take it out after boiling it a long time, the beef still tastes as beef, the pork still tastes as pork," says Lei, adding, "I am very proud of my stock."

Lei began cooking when he was eighteen, as an apprentice at what he says was "the only authentic Chiu Chow-style restaurant in Macao," a cabaret with a dance floor surrounded by eighty or ninety tables, each of which seated twelve. "We were cooking for eight hundred to nine hundred people" a night, he says. For the first six months, his only compensation was three meals daily. "I work there, I get fed," he sums up. "I waited for any position available to move up."

The Chinese apprentice system is grueling, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo confirms. "For the first six months you are carrying water. Then after that you are washing dishes. For the first year you are doing nothing else. And then for six months you are washing vegetables. And then you start cutting. It is very, very tough work."

Says Fred Ferretti: "What you are at first is 'The Guy Who Doesn't Wear Shoes': He literally doesn't wear shoes."

Lei says each of the cabaret's five executive chefs took on an assistant to whom he taught a narrowly defined craft. Lei drew marinades and sauces. "Whatever skills my chef knows, he gives to me, and I learn," he recounts. "But I don't learn the skills of another chef."

Says Lo: "If you're smart and you listen to your master, you will do very well. If your master tells you to do something, you don't say anything but 'Yes, master.' But as you do this, you become better. And you learn a lot."

"None of the guys at Hyde Park — the Culinary Institute of America — could stand that," laughs Ferretti.

"They would never do that," Lo agrees. "But this way you really learn. They don't tell you how much to put in. You just look, and feel, and trust your eyes and your hands. It's a really, really tough job."

As Lei learned marinades and sauces, he took pains to absorb the knowledge of the other chefs. To his left may have been an apprentice learning to stir fry, to his right the roasters. "We all have our own specialties, and we do not overstep each other's boundaries," Lei explains. So he learned via osmosis. "I get to watch, I get to hear. When I do my chores and he does his chores, I watch him do his and he watches me do mine."

Lei spent two decades at the cabaret. In 1997 he bought a food cart, and for the next five years he catered to "blue-collar laborers who worked construction or low-class jobs on the streets. They needed a quick bite for cheap."

The cart setup was about half the size of his current restaurant's dining room. "I had a stove, and I made stir fry on the spot," he says. "There was limited seating, limited storage. The cart was small, with two wheels, a stove and a wok. I pushed it home at the end of the day." The food he made there, he says, was "more authentic. It was like a food stand, and the sanitation standard was very different, with road dust and exhaust. It wasn't very sanitized like here. But at the time, during those years, nobody cared."

Lei says he relocated to America in order to provide a better future for his young daughter and chose St. Louis because his wife has family here. In 2003, he opened his restaurant. "It was the only thing I know, that I do best, cooking this cuisine," he says through interpreter Eric Huang. Americans seldom eat here, he adds. "If they do, they're with a Chinese-speaking friend."


Meng Lei isn't the kind of chef who hangs row upon row of roast duck in his front window. Unlike some chefs, who'll display days' worth of cooling birds at a time, Lei cooks only as many ducks as he intends to use. When he needs one, he takes it from a tray on his counter, sets it breast-side up and carves it with carefree confidence. The feet and tongues are set aside for the cold plates, the thighs he deploys in walnut-size bites in any number of dishes, the wings he uses for a cold dish that gets stored in the cooler.

In this fashion he goes through a half-dozen ducks a day, some roasted, others boiled in lo soi. Lei has served me roast duck on a bed of flash-fried Chinese spinach. He has wrapped duck meat, taro and shrimp in a bundle and fried it in a soft tempura batter. He is most proud of his Chao Lyan roasted duck, which is always available. This preparation involves roasting the bird, then frying it in oil in order to render a crisp but silken skin. The roasting bastes the bird with a gentle glaze of soy and ginger; from the wok it receives an infusion of finely chopped scallions (mainly the greens) and Szechuan peppercorns. When consumed in quantity, the latter cause a minty, oddly addictive numbing sensation in the mouth.

Lei says that if he tried to serve his twice-roasted duck to gourmands in Macao, "they would laugh." The traditional version, he explains, is made with goose. "Because goose is not as common in America, I prepare it with duck," he says.

Like everything Lei cooks, the duck would draw raves if presented in fancier surroundings. But the chef prefers to work alone, and on a small scale. His wife, Cheng, is his only assistant. She works at a print shop and heads to the restaurant for the dinner "rush." But she doesn't go anywhere near the stove. She serves and buses. He cooks. The average price of an entrée is $10 or so. I only paid more when I special-ordered a crab entrée, the fixings for which cost Lei $30. Even then, a meal that served seven cost $150. A feast for four typically runs about $50. Much of his trade comes via takeout orders.

Johnny Wang learned about Lei's restaurant from his mom, who heard about it from a friend. Lei does advertise, in the St. Louis Chinese American News, copies of which are piled by the restaurant's door, mixed in with old copies of ESPN The Magazine. But he prefers to remain under the radar. He worries that if Americans were to read about his restaurant, they might descend en masse. "Once the article comes out, I might be disappointed, because it will bring me tens or hundreds of customers and I have no manpower to serve those people," he says.

Meng Lei has thought about expanding, but he is disinclined to do so. More people wouldn't necessarily be a good thing. "I would need some help in the kitchen," Lei says. "And nobody else in St. Louis knows this style of cooking."

In his role as Chinese Chamber of Commerce booster, Huang has long urged Lei to enlist his daughter's help in translating his menu into English, and to add a few more tables. But Lei hasn't heeded the advice. Opines Huang: "The mentality that he has, that he only wants to do business with the Chinese community, I believe is totally wrong. Caucasians are the majority here. If you want to only do business with Asians, you're going to miss a whole lot of potential customers. He ought to set up and do business with both."

Huang translates to Lei what he has just told me, and there is silence. Finally the chef mumbles a response.

Translates Huang: "He says, 'Let me make my own decisions.'"

"There's something I respect about that," Fred Ferretti says when told of the exchange. "He deserves accolades for sticking with his style." Ferretti goes on to tell of a New York Timesfood critic who wrote a rave review of a restaurant whose owner spoke no English. "It was in Chinatown," Ferretti recalls. "She walked in and had a nice dinner. She wrote about it and gave it three stars. The poor son of a bitch was besieged. He couldn't keep up with all the Gucci shoes that showed up. He didn't know what the hell to do."

"It is not easy to start a little restaurant like this and so stubbornly keep the traditional taste," adds Washington University anthropologist Jian Leng. "This restaurant hasn't adapted to the American style of Chinese food yet, but we cannot promise it won't happen in the future. He only has one daughter to support and his wife works during the daytime to help support them, so he really doesn't feel it is necessary to expand his business. Adapting his food to Western people's tastes is not the need for him. Therefore his restaurant is unique."

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo says one option would be to compromise. "He could add a few tables and put people on a waiting list. Tell him that," she suggests. "Tell him he could hire someone who speaks English to answer the phone and make a waiting list. That way he won't get so upset. They could say, 'I don't have a table for you now, but I do in two weeks from today.'"

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
St. Louis Concert Tickets
Loading...